By Julie Brown
Socrates said, “Man must rise above the Earth, to the top of the atmosphere and beyond, for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” I’m not sure how Socrates would have accomplished that in the fourth century B.C., but it is quite easy for those of us in Ohio to complete in 2013.
Luckily, we live within a two-hour drive of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. The museum is located six miles northeast of Dayton, Ohio on I-675. Admission is free and the Museum is open every day from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The Museum includes an interesting and well-stocked gift shop and a great restaurant called the Valkyrie Café. Over a million guests visit the Museum each year.
The Museum is quite large, over 17 acres under roof, and unlike more traditional museums, it is displayed in a three-dimensional format. The visitor might look up and find himself directly under the bombing bay of a bomber or looking down at the nose of a rocket; every cubic foot is used to create an illusion of flight. The Museum is full of aircraft, weapons, and engines. There are many exhibits including uniforms, jackets, and flying accessories.
A visitor first enters the Early Years Gallery. This highlights the pioneers of flight, from the Wright Brothers to WWI aircraft. Surprisingly, it seems as if most of my knowledge about WWI aircraft was learned from the “Peanuts” comic strip. I remember Snoopy’s alter ego, the World War I Flying Ace, sitting on top of his dog house, pretending it was a Sopwith Camel, fighting imaginary battles with the Red Baron. At the Museum, I saw a Sopwith Camel and learned that it was a British World War I single-seat biplane fighter that was introduced in 1917. I also learned that the Red Baron’s real name was Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, a fighter pilot in the Imperial German Army Air Service, who was shot down by a Canadian pilot flying a Sopwith Camel in 1918.
The next gallery is focused on World War II. Thanks to many war movies, I knew a bit more about the crucial role that aircraft warfare played in World War II. This gallery is packed with planes and exhibits that capture the pivotal moments, campaigns and heroes of U.S. Army Air Forces’ air power in both the Pacific and European Theaters. One of the most interesting planes is Bockscar, the B-29 bomber that dropped the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki. A video display explains that the initial target was Kokura but due to cloud cover, the Bockscar proceeded to its secondary target: Nagasaki. Because of the mid-flight change of targets, the plane did not have enough fuel to land at its intended landing site of Iwo Jima. Instead, it landed at Okinawa still critically low on fuel.
My favorite part of the entire Museum was the nose art on the WW II planes. Nose art is a form of folk art, or aircraft graffiti, which was begun to identify friendly units. During the war, nose art was a welcome opportunity to express individuality within the uniformity of the military, to spark memories of peacetime life, and serve as a superstitious protection against the anxieties of the war. Planes in this exhibit included nose art depicting pin-up girls, voodoo symbols, liquor bottles, playing cards, and maps of the pilot’s home state.
The third gallery focuses on aircraft of the Korean War and Southeast Asia war. In the Korean exhibit, the fighting planes from each side are prominently displayed: the F-86A Sabre and the MiG-15. In the Southeast Asia War section, there is an emphasis on the heavy bombers (B-52D) that carried out Operations Linebacker I and II. There are several opportunities in this gallery for visitors to climb into the cockpits of actual planes. As a peacenik, I was surprised to find a collection of anti-war memorabilia sported by US Air Force pilots in this section of the museum.
The fourth gallery displays the sleek aircraft of the Cold War including the only permanent display of the B2 Stealth Bomber. Much of this exhibit is focused on the rapid technological advances that occurred in air flight during this era.
The final gallery is housed in a silo that is 140 feet high. In this section, the visitor will find many missiles including the Titan I and II and Jupiter missiles. Also, there is a space collection here including the Apollo 15 Command Module, Mercury and Gemini capsules.
Whether you are a military history buff, aviation aficionado, or even a pacifist like me, I think you will find a day spent at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force quite fascinating. We are lucky to have a national treasure so near. “Off we go into the Wild Blue Yonder…”